This book, part of the “Dear America” series, was written for children ages eight through twelve, and was originally published in 2011. It has been republished because it deals with the impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on families. I found in slightly didactic, but didn’t stop reading.
Eleven year old Lydia and her older brother Daniel are suddenly orphaned by influenza, which could kill in less than 48 hours. Their nearest relative (an uncle) is unable to care for them, so they are taken to the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake.
Historical background: The American Shakers were a Utopian religious sect. Committed to celibacy, the communities grew by accepting converts and fostering orphan children. In 1918, their numbers were declining, and there were more female than male Shakers. In addition to farming, they manufactured high quality furniture, wooden boxes, herbal remedies and clothing to support themselves.
Lowry paints a positive picture of Shaker life at that time and place, and the fictional Lydia could certainly have faced far worse circumstances. The big shock for her was the almost total separation of the sexes in Shaker life. Lydia couldn’t visit freely with her brother. She adapted quickly to the Shaker lifestyle of simplicity, hard work, good food, worship and joyful singing. Daniel, however, ran away, leaving Lydia afraid for his safety. He returns during a blizzard, when the community needs help. An epilogue suggests Lydia left the community to marry at age 23, but Daniel was a Shaker all his life.
Only a few Shakers now survive, but “Requirements for Membership” are posted on their website. I found a news article suggesting a new member may join the group. Sabbathday Lake has become a retreat center, and is supported by an active “Friends of the Shakers” organization, consisting of people who value the spiritual and cultural heritage of Shakerism. Their worship (absent Covid) is open to all. I would like to visit them.
I discovered Lois Lowry when I worked as a substitute teacher in my local K-8 school district. A substitute doesn’t do grading and administrative work like a regular teacher, so during my “down” time, I read whatever was around. Later, I made a conscious decision to keep reading Young Adult fiction, in order to know what my teenaged friends were enjoying. I categorize these books as fantasy because of their (unexplained) supernatural elements.
The Giver grabbed my attention.
The setting of The Giver is dystopian, a community where contentment is achieved by conformity and the suppression of emotions. The Giver is the first in a four book series. Son is the last, and I found it satisfying. It portrays personal growth and the (endless) battle between good and evil. Great plot! Half way through Son, I realized I had NO IDEA how the book would end.
An aspect of this book that I liked was its emphasis on preparation. If you are determined to do something difficult, can you prepare? Two contradictory scenarios play out. In one case, a young woman trains for years in order to surmount a physical/psychological challenge. Another teenager invests his time and effort in building a boat. Total failure. Soon after, he faces his enemy hastily and poorly prepared, but triumphs in a contest of wills.
Lois Lowry wrote more than forty books, some of which have been adapted to film or stage, and The Giver was made into an opera. (I can’t imagine this.) I look forward to reading her memoirs.
Writing about Divergent and my reservations about its use in schools made me remember the one and only time I contacted a local school about a book on the curriculum. The details aren’t all that clear. It would help if I could remember which son, which grade and which school!
I think the book was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, which I admit to not having read. Holocaust fiction for Young Adults.
Part of the problem was timing – 2003. We had only begun to process September 11, 2001. The United States plunging into the Iraq war. A local National Guard unit was being deployed, and families were stressed. I couldn’t see trying to explain the Holocaust to early teens when they were also dealing with parents leaving to fight and newspaper reports about American casualties.
(So it must have been my younger son…)
The teacher I contacted accepted my logic. The curriculum allowed some choice on the part of teachers, and, in my son’s class, a collection of classical Greek myths (violent, some of them, but safely distant) was substituted.
I believe that “holocaust education” is required by the State of New Jersey, and some of this is accomplished through the use of fiction. This leads to my other problem with the Number the Stars.
WHY FICTION? Don’t the facts stand on their own? There is considerable documentation about the Holocaust. Couldn’t a true story be offered?
I’m a very literal person. Maybe too literal?
My advice to parents – read every book assigned to your child. You’ll find some to love, and maybe some to question. If you ever decided to attempt an intervention, I would really like to hear about it!
Yes, I read Young Adult Fiction. I got started when I worked as a substitute school teacher, back around 1995. I signed on with my local public district, pre-K through 8. I took every kind of assignment, from Special Ed to second year Spanish (which I don’t speak). When students weren’t in front of me, I browsed whatever books were at hand. My most interesting “find” was Lois Lowry’s The Giver.
My second reason for reading YA fiction is that I “work” with teenagers. I’m a volunteer in a religious youth program. I spend time with sixth graders up through 19 year olds. I began out of a sense of obligation – my kids were involved – but I continued because I was having fun. I still am. One way I can understand my young friends is by paying attention to what they are reading. If The Hunger Games is being read, I should check it out. So I did. I found the first book of that series gripping (to put it mildly), but stopped part way through the second volume. Too violent for me… I’ve read some vampire novels, most of which left little impression.
My absolute, all time favorite YAF book is A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond, originally published in 1976. It’s about youngsters, but there is nothing “cute” about this book. A real family faces real trouble, then supernatural events intrude. Good, believable characters and sound writing. The story takes place in Wales. I found this book in the Chinaberry Books catalog, which deserves attention as a good place to find reading material.